Russia says 'return,' but Chechen refugees stay put

Refugees are fleeing Chechnya's civil war in rising numbers.

Larissa Dakayeva is a recent statistic in a forgotten crisis. Two months ago she fled to this squalid refugee camp from her home in Serzhen Yurt, in central Chechnya, seeking escape from the constant stress and hazards of a war the Kremlin has repeatedly declared finished.

She has found temporary refuge at the sprawling, muddy Yandare camp, just inside the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, where she now lives with her infant son, husband, and six other people in a cramped and leaky tent. She has yet to receive any food rations from Russian authorities, who seem loath to register her family as "displaced persons," but still she considers herself very lucky to be here.

"It's become too dangerous to stay in Chechnya," she says. "One day can be quiet, the next day shooting and shelling break out all around. The Russians are constantly making security sweeps, and taking away men. We just couldn't bear it any more."

Although the world's gaze has shifted to Afghanistan and other zones of human catastrophe, the plight of Chechnya's uprooted people has not eased. With a population of 300,000, the tiny, impoverished republic of Ingushetia is host to some 180,000 Chechen refugees, and aid workers say the numbers fleeing Chechnya have increased in recent months.

Tens of thousands are enduring their third winter in overcrowded, ill-provisioned tent camps in open fields, just a couple hours' drive from their ruined homes and villages. Uncounted thousands more are crammed into barns, warehouses, and deserted factory buildings, where unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, and psychological stress are often critical problems.

After 28 months of war, Russia claims the Chechen separatist rebels are all but destroyed, and that the devastated republic is starting to return to normalcy. Official statements paint a picture of local Chechen authorities retaking control, schools opening, infrastructure being restored, and communities becoming livable again. In recent months Moscow and its Chechen proxies have stepped up pressure on the refugees to return to their homes.

"The refugees have already been returning to their homes in great numbers," says a Kremlin information officer, who insisted on anonymity. "Conditions in Chechnya are gradually normalizing, although much more work needs to be done. Some of those displaced people staying in Ingushetia aren't returning because they are being misinformed by [rebel] agents about the situation in Chechnya. Also, there are many who enjoy living from aid handouts and don't want to give it up."

But international aid workers and Chechen refugees tell a very different tale, of deepening mayhem and growing insecurity in many parts of the war-torn republic. "We tried to go back last summer, but found it was just impossible to stay there," says Roza Bisangurova, who escaped to Ingushetia with her three children after their house in the western Chechen village of Orekhovo was destroyed in fierce fighting in 1999. "If you have any food, Russian soldiers will steal it," she says. "There is no school, no electricity, no water. Most of all, there is no safety." She says she feared constantly for her 11-year old son, Timur. "Russian soldiers seize our men in the security sweeps, beat them and rob them. Sometimes they disappear forever."

Ms. Bisangurova and her family live in an 8-meter-square tent, with three other families - a total of 20 people - in the bleak Sputnik camp, near the Chechen border. But she says it's preferable to the risks of life in Orekhovo. "Aid agencies bring food, my kids go to school, and, thank God, there is no violence here. I have stopped believing we will ever go back to Chechnya," she says.

Tamara Khaduyeva, a Chechen psychologist who works with war-traumatized children, says there is no mystery about the refugees' reluctance to return. "In my work, I travel through Chechnya every week. The atmosphere there is extreme," she says. "I try to control my panic at Russian security checkpoints. After all, my documents are in order. But I see people being routinely humiliated, beaten, robbed, arrested. Sometimes shooting breaks out, and I just jump out of my skin. It often happens that I arrive at a meeting with children I'm supposed to be working with, and they end up comforting me."

After almost three years, an air of permanence is settling upon Ingushetia's grim refugee camps. UNICEF has constructed six wooden schools, and staffed them with Chechen teachers, while other Russian government, UN, and private agencies have stabilized supplies of water, food, clothing, and electricity. "The situation for these displaced people is not life-threatening, as maybe it is for refugees in Afghanistan," says Viktoria Zotikova, a UN information officer. "But the danger is that these people will just give up hope. They are living so close to their homes, but they feel like they can never go back."

There are other troubling undercurrents here. A whole generation of young Chechens is growing up in the camps with no experiences other than the brutality of war and the alienation of exile. "Of course there is anger and hatred toward the Russians just below the surface here," says Ms. Khaduyeva. "How could it be otherwise? People have seen their homes burned, their relatives killed, their sons taken away. But mostly, people want peace. We pray for peace."

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